30 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: capella di sol lewitt, la morra

One advantage of traveling through wine regions with people who are totally uninterested in wine is that sometimes in bored desperation they will propose visiting obscure local landmarks that turn out, in the end, to be very cool indeed.

Such was the case with J's architect wife C, who on our way back from a desultory Sunday traipse through the mediocre churches of Alba at baking midday proposed visiting something called the Capella di Sol Lewitt, located on a ridge overlooking the famed Brunate vineyard between Barolo and La Morra. We weren't sure what to expect of a chapel painted by the pioneering conceptualist creator of such presumably non-devotional works as Inverted Six Towers and Isometric Projection #13.

In the end it looked for all the world like amid the strict rows of cascading cru vineyard, someone had installed a really cheery taqueria.

28 September 2011

balancing act: l'entrée des artistes, 75011

I'm continually making idle chatter about the prospect of one day opening up a wine bar in Paris. The idea is very far from realisation for me, chiefly because I'm hell-bent on becoming a (more) published author before returning to the restaurant industry, but also because I'm not even sure I'd want to do it then. It's not an easy life.

It's thus with a sense of wistful admiration that I encounter a cracking great new bar like the 11ème's L'Entrée des Artistes, a bar à manger that, along with La Retro'Bottega on the other side of the same arrondissement, stands as one of the only places in Paris that approach this wine-bar ideal I have rattling around in my head.

L'Entrée des Artistes even goes farther than I ever would, and offers, alongside a boldly curated natural wine list, a list of cocktails that is the equal of any in the city. If "natural wine + food + perfect cocktails" sounds too good to be true, well, my fear that it might shortly prove to be is what has me returning as often as possible before that happens.

26 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: osteria la salita, monforte d'alba

I had been concerned, when agreeing to vacation in Italy in August, that we'd encounter nothing but summer closures wherever we went. My general take on August is that it is the month Europeans use to cleverly evade neighboring cultures, by abandoning their native capital and visiting the capitals of other nations, whose native populations have simultaneously decamped, like a large-scale apartment swap. Paris shuts resolutely in August; by and large the only things left open during this time are mercenary tourist traps.

It didn't bode well that the acclaimed restaurant linked with the hotel / residence where we stayed, Da Felicin, was closed during our stay. Upon arrival we had a slightly grim noncommunicative interaction with the older fellow at the desk at Da Felicin, brightened only at the end by the unrequested receipt of several of his endorsements of good restaurants open in Monforte in August. In the end we wound up visiting all his recommendations that week, less because so much was closed than because Monforte is a very small town.

The first place, Osteria La Salita, was all of twenty paces from our doorstep, and it was in any final reckoning probably the best. The cuisine was fresh, and the wine, like almost everywhere we went, was magnificent and cheap - but it was the buoyant, over-the-top hospitality that pretty much gilded the entire meal. It was evidently infectious: towards the end of our meal, an adjacent table of visiting Ligurians spontaneously presented us with a fresh black truffle, and then another, when they saw how delighted we were with the first one.

23 September 2011

rien à voir avec le vin nature: la compagnie des vins surnaturels, 75006

Because one of my favorite chefs and fellow natural wine afficionados requested it, here is an attempt at a summary in French of my recent post about "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," the misleadingly-named new wine bar from owners of Experimental Cocktail Club :

Voici une tentative de sommaire en français de mon récent article sur "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," le nouveau bar à vin au nom trompeur, ouvert par les propriétaires de l'Experimental Cocktail Club :

Ce jeudi dernier j'était présent à l'ouverture du nouveau bar à vin des propriétaires de ECC. On me dit que c'est le résultat d'une collaboration avec quelqu'un d’un grand domaine Bordelais, et cela se ressent sur la carte du vin, qui comprend environs 200 références, dont 50% sont des Bordeaux. Bon, rien de grave jusque là - ce bar à vin est implanté dans le 6ème arrondissement, le territoire des touristes, des étudiants gâtés, et de la bourgeoisie “chichi” de Paris qui aime la ville principalement pour ses plaisirs chers et luxueux, donc il est logique de trouver une carte de vin pleine de bouteilles recherchées pour le standing qu'elles donnent à ceux qui les consomment en public. Mais pour cet endroit de luxe conventionel, qui n'offre presque que des vins conventionels, les propriétaires ont choisi le nom de "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels."

Sauf ignorance massive de leurs parts, il n'est pas possible de comprendre ce nom autrement que ce qu'il semble être: un essai malhonnête d’abuser des principes et des idéaux du monde du vin nature.

21 September 2011

somm needed: le chatomat, 75020

The second-most curious thing about the inconsistently ambitious new 20ème bistro Le Chatomat is the name, which in American English sounds unavoidably like "laundromat." I have some French familiarity, of course, but even this only led me to imagine an unappetizing cross between a cat and a tomato. It was only towards the end of my meal there that I was reliably informed by a friend of chef-owners Alice di Cagno and Victor Gaillard that the restaurant's name is intended as a punning tweak on the name of a more famous Paris restaurant, Le Chateaubriand: Chateau + (sounds like) Brillante vs. (sounds like) Chateau + (sounds like) Matte.

If that sounds like astonishingly obscure, insidery, borderline nonsensical reasoning, suggestive that the proprietors live at least part-time in a closed internal dream world, we may still forgive them because the food is terrific. What I am less likely to forgive, and what implies a similar weird naïveté regarding contemporary dining convention, is the most curious thing about the place: that accompanying the marvelous and underpriced Michelin-lineage (Le Gavroche, Ledoyen, L'Arpège), globally inspired (Brazilian / Italian / French) cuisine on offer at Le Chatomat, is a pokey loser wine list containing nothing of any interest, clearly put together by a mediocre caviste seeking to unload some vacuous backstock.

C'mon, you want to say. You couldn't find a single well-informed somm in this city?

19 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: solativo vinosteria, ivrea

My first reaction upon walking into Solativo Vinosteria, a wine bar in Ivrea until recently co-owned by the Ferrando family, was one of exasperation: I take two steps in Ivrea, pop.: 24k, I reflected, and already I encounter a wine bar plainly superior to any that presently exist in Paris.

I suppose I can't pronounce that with total certainty, as I never saw Solativo in full swing. We'd driven over in the afternoon with manager Ivan Zanovello after tasting together with Luigi Ferrando in the latter's nearby tasting room, and the bar was not yet open. But all the ingredients for a lively, inspiring wine bar were in place: a terrace, a long bar, a spacious, informal interior, fridges stuffed with excellent native and local wines, even a chalkboard cocktail / aperitivo list that looked refreshing, if not fancy by any means.* There's frequent live music. Meanwhile, the bar shares an entrance with Luigi Ferrando's son Andrea's wine shop, where a bottle of Carema Ettiquette Bianca can be had for 14€. (Compared to $60 on stateside wine lists.) 

If we hadn't all been so knackered from the tasting, with several hours of driving ahead, it might have been nice to share a bottle with the heaping meat and cheese plates Ivan kindly fixed for us. As it was, we stuck with Chinotti, and I sat there trying to envision some reason to return to Ivrea one day. 

16 September 2011

ups & downs: avant comptoir, 75006

After fleeing from the malevolent fraudulence on parade at last week's opening of "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," my friends and I found ourselves in the 6ème arrondissement on a Thursday night in desperate need of an actual glass of true natural wine. It was this desperation that impelled us to elbow our way into Paris' least comfortable dining experience, Avant Comptoir, a place I wasn't exceptionally keen on revisiting after having a middling lunch there a few months ago.

Perhaps it was in part the sheer relief of once again being in an establishment that knows, understands, and cares for natural wine, but I had a surprisingly lovely experience at Avant Comptoir that evening. No wait, no undue shoving. A screaming fresh octopus carpaccio, a faintly oriental salade d'oreilles de cochon (pigs' ears), and a bottle of Georges Descombes 2008 Brouilly, kindly fetched from nextdoor for us after a brief back and forth with the manager - all of this was sublime, and the memory is only lightly marred, in retrospect, by the fact that I returned two days later and had a totally abysmal experience, one that regretfully confirmed my initial diagnosis of the place as being a good concept executed with neither grace nor consistency. 

14 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: luigi ferrando, ivrea

I'm not yet so established as a wine writer that I don't still feel a residual bit of outsidery shame at contacting estates and asking busy winemakers to make time for someone with no purchasing power. Writing about wine estates can do them a valuable service - I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe this - but the estates that interest me most are rarely those that need much promotion. As such, in preparing for our Piedmont sojourn, I just sent a carpetbomb of emails to the region's most interesting winemakers, explaining that I was a wine writer traveling with my friend J, an actual wine buyer, and asking could we perhaps pop in for a visit?

To my disappointment, I received no response from the Luigi Ferrando estate, by whom we were to pass on our car journey from Sierre to Monforte. Ferrando produce arguably the greatest Nebbiolo outside of Barolo or Barbaresco, under an appellation called Carema in the Canavese, a psychotically steep alpine region abutting the Valle d'Aosta. Both J and I had previously had notable success selling these wines in California, where they're distributed by Neal Rosenthal

It was a good thing J had the good sense to just phone up the estate with almost zero notice from where we stayed in Switzerland, non parlo italiano be damned. We wound up with an appointment the next day, not with current winemaker Roberto Ferrando, who had just left for vacation, but with his father, the man himself, Luigi Ferrando. 

12 September 2011

what's in a name: la compagnie des vins surnaturels, 75006

This past Thursday I attended the opening of a sharp nightclubby wine bar in the 6ème off the Marché Saint Germain, the new project of the enterprising folks responsible for a trio of Paris' best cocktail bars (Experimental Cocktail Club, Curio Parlour, and Prescription). Befitting the location, and what I perceive to be the increasingly profit-minded priorities of the owners, the new wine bar offers a substantial list of conventional expense-account wines: established greats, obvious classics, show-off bottles. The list contains perhaps ten recognizeably "natural" wines,* but is fully 50% Bordeaux, reflecting a partnership (I'm told) with someone involved with an esteemed Bordeaux portfolio.** 

Ordinarily I would decline to post anything on this. It is not a natural wine bar, for one thing, and additionally the Native Companion presently works for the company, creating the potential for a conflict of interest.*** But, in what I can only presume is not an error, but rather an outrageously hubristic thumb-in-the-eye to anyone who cares about or works with or understands natural wine, the owners have christened the bold new not-especially-natural wine venture "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels." 

It would be remiss to let this pass without comment. They seem to be asking for it. 

09 September 2011

neither: frenchie bar à vin, 75002

I finally got around to popping into Frenchie Bar à Vin the other day. I was meeting a friend of a friend (now just friend) called T who was passing through Paris. My somewhat perverse original idea was not to have a meal, but rather to patronise the new establishment in a manner appropriate to an archetypal wine bar, as it is popularly conceived: a meeting place, somewhere to pop in and have an informal splash.

A doomed effort, doomed from the get-go. I did initial research on wait times, something one doesn't do for the Archetypal Wine Bar In The Sky, and was informed that to guarantee no wait the best thing is to arrive smack at opening hour, 7pm. This was, for once, convenient for me, so I did. Upon arrival I joined the ranks of perhaps five other people, holding twelve seats between us. By the time T arrived, a few minutes late, several of us earlybirds were reading paperbacks, which activity, you can imagine, did nothing to create a convivial atmosphere.

There wasn't such an atmosphere the night I went, and I ruefully suspect there's slim chance of drumming one up in a place that ranks this insensibly high on tourists' must-visit lists, a place where your seat real estate is actively coveted by bespectacled native businessmen with pursed lips, holding full glasses like access passes, peeved at having to wait. As a wine bar, it's draggy. It was just lucky that T and I got along swimmingly. And that, despite the misnomer, Frenchie Bar à Vin still manages to be an enjoyable experience on its own terms, which is to say as a terrific small plates restaurant at 7pm sharp.

08 September 2011

n.d.p. en suisse: raclette dinner

My first introduction to raclette service came shortly after my arrival in Paris, in the apartment of a colleague who had one of those spacecrafty tabletop grills where you sautée meat and vegetable accompaniments on top while the cheese roasts in tiny trays in the middle. I've always found the experience fun and communal, if deadly; the lakefuls of molten cheese tend to render me unable to eat for days at a stretch. 

Swiss mountain folk seem to have a higher tolerance for such things. (At least, higher than half-Japanese Pennsylvanians.) Apparently in the Valais, where my friend C's brother N lives, raclette was at one point such an integral part of the diet that homes were built with a basement room dedicated specifically to raclette consumption, which clever arrangement kept the odors of bubbling cheese from permeating the rest of the house, the laundry, the drapes, etc. N's house contains one of these raclette-dens, and it was there that we all shared a meal of the famous cheese, this time paired with local Valais wines and prepared using an arguably more authentic gizmo. 

06 September 2011

n.d.p. en suisse: chateau de villa, sierre

On the way to Monforte d'Alba, where the Native Companion and I had booked a flat for a week with our friends J and C, we all spent a night in Sierre, in Switzerland, where C's brother N lives in a narrow multistoried wooden house with something like six decks that clings to a steep hillside crammed with vines. 

Sierre, I only realised upon arrival,* is smack in the Valais, Switzerland's biggest and most dizzyingly diverse wine-producing region. "Biggest" here should be taken relative to Switzerland's overall wine output, which in 2009 was a tiny 1.1 million hectolitres**, almost none of it exported. (For comparison, French wine production in the same year was over 48 million hectolitres.***) The Valais is, however, ampelographically diverse by any standard, home to a panoply of regional oddities, ranging from refreshing white Fendants to the rich oak-aged red Cornalins. Many, for all practical purposes, cannot be tasted elsewhere, because both the incorrigible strength of the Swiss economy and the generally feather-light character of the wines make the product uniquely unsuited to the global marketplace.

I was accordingly over-the-moon when N suggested we all take an apero at a local wine destination, a bar / restaurant / cave / museum called Chateau de Villa

01 September 2011

let this not be the future: le floreal, 75010

I wouldn't consider myself assimilated by a long shot. But I've been in Paris long enough by now that there are times I don't feel worlds apart from my adoptive society. From the street markets to the Velib system to the ready availability of natural wines, the place suits me fine - I often pass uninterrupted weeks under the sunny impression that I share some priorities and perspective with Parisians-at-large.

There is accordingly a great rupturing sense of alienation when I get dragged to a wrenchingly misguided but seemingly popular place like Le Floreal, a new-ish nonstop service restaurant opened near Goncourt by the folks behind 10ème bistro hangout Chez Jeanette. Le Floreal, with its huge menu, Mondrian-in-Vegas paneling, and incongruous chandeliers, fairly drips with investment money and ambition - all apparently in service of importing the worst American restaurant trends for ready consumption by credulous Parisians.